A recent study in the high-altitude Kingdom of Bhutan indicates climate change may have its yak herding population on thin ice. Owing to its topography, the Himalaya provides for a variety of climatic conditions and human populations to study. This diversity makes indigenous peoples who inhabit those areas uniquely qualified to provide traditional knowledge, empirical evidence, and perspective.
This new study, published in Mountain Research and Development, seeks to evaluate vulnerabilities of the yak herding livelihood; no fancy instruments, no ice cores required, just people talking to people who have seen a place change over a long period of time.
One hundred village elders, averaging 60 years of age, were chosen as the survey subjects. The researchers from Bhutan’s Ministry of Agriculture and Forests set out on foot in late summer 2017 to gauge the elders’ awareness of environmental changes as well as their perceptions of climate change signals, weather patterns, water and vegetation changes, and economic impacts. The elders offered keen, spatio-temporal perspectives for the researchers who aimed to measure perceptible changes in climate.
Study sites in major yak herding communities were selected in the districts of Thimphu, Bumthang, Paro, and Wangdue. The elders were interviewed in a two-stage sample, and results of the questionnaire were averaged across the population. Survey questions were pretested and framed as closed-ended with three possible responses: “agree,” “disagree,” and “neither.” The conclusions drawn from the results provide a snapshot of a corner of the world at a tipping point.
The yak herding elders’ observed warming over the past 15 years concurs with climate-research data. Data, often measured from a distance and at brief moments in time, can lack salience when presented alone. But when compared next to the testimony of observant, indigenous people, like the yak herders, the data carries greater weight and texture.
The elders observed the increase in temperature, glacial retreat, and an ascension of the snow line. They noted that weather events like flash flooding have become increasingly unpredictable and severe. A majority of respondents said that the frequency of landslides has also increased, though they were divided on the increase of glacial lake outburst floods, a catastrophic consequence of receding glaciers.
Though yak herders are few in number, herding is the lifeblood for a majority of inhabitants in Bhutan’s high Himalaya. To provide additional income for the yak herders, in 2004 the government gave them explicit collection rights to harvest cordyceps, a valued element in traditional Chinese medicine.
According to Tashi Dorji, a senior ecosystems specialist and Bhutan’s “Godfather of Conservation,” the fungi are complicit in luring yak herders away from yak herding. Dorji told GlacierHub “With good market price, the income from this high value commodity has encouraged yak herders to invest in alternative livelihood in downstream-away from yak farming.” Though now the cordyceps themselves are in doubt due to the changing climate.
Dorji cited another pressure forcing rapid transformation of yak herding in Bhutan: education. While primary schools are common in yak herding villages, young farmers are forced to migrate downstream for higher education. Dorji told GlacierHub, “This already distances younger generation of herders from their landscape and their traditional farming knowledge. Coupled with inherent difficulties and lack of socio-economic development amenities in those landscapes, young herders are less attracted to yak farming.”
The researchers offered a reduction in herd size as a potential adaptation strategy for the yak herders. A smaller herd equates to reduced income, less security and more hardship. While harvesting prized cordyceps is offsetting losses in yak productivity in the interim, a long-term strategy will likely need to include alternate economic opportunities.
As temperatures advance, the hardships will grow. Hardly a country in the world has contributed less atmospheric emissions than Bhutan. And yet it is populations like the yak herders who suffer from climate change first, and most. External forcings like globalization increases might lure yak herders into exploring other ways of subsistence. As northern Bhutan becomes increasingly connected to the world and the yak herding livelihood continues to be threatened, their way of life will remain tenuous.
Known to many as the “roof of the world,” the Pamir Mountains are home to quite a few superlatives. But nothing in the Pamirs elicits quite as deep a gasp as the pastime of a group of ethnic Tajiks living in China’s Taxkorgan Autonomous County, near China’s borders with Pakistan, Afghanistan and Tajikistan. Buzkashi, a popular game among many Central Asian communities, is a sport in which riders grapple on horseback over an inflated goat carcass. In attempting to wrest the goat away from other competitors, riders often fall into large scrums, contorting their bodies while trying to keep their horses upright. Many fall off their horses, and deaths are not uncommon. Buzkashi may in fact be the most dangerous game in the world. In Taxkorgan, a region dominated by curtains of clouds, rocks, glacier ice, and snow, it is played atop yaks one day each year.
Last fall, I traveled in the upper Naryn River valley in Kyrgyzstan, taking part in a field trip organized by the University of Central Asia’s Mountain Society Research Institute. This organization put me in touch with a local researcher, Samat Kalmuratov, who accompanied me on visits to villages and nature reserves, serving as guide and interpreter.
The Naryn River drains the high glaciated peaks of the Tien Shan range in eastern Kyrgyzstan. It flows westward, forming the Syr Darya at its confluence with the Kara Darya River, and continuing through the agricultural Fergana Valley into Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. In former times, it reached the Aral Sea, once the world’s fourth largest lake.
These photographs of the river, its valley and inhabitants show both significant continuity and major changes in recent decades.
In the extreme altitudes and harsh conditions of the Hindu Kush Himalayan Region, yak herding is more than a way of life–it is a way to survive. Environmental change currently threatens yak populations in the region, and undermines the livelihoods of the communities they support. However, a recent report raises hopes of protecting yaks through international cooperation within the region.
The International Center for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) released a special publication in May on yaks in the Hindu Kush Himalayan region, also known as HKH. The report, “Yak on the Move: Transboundary Challenges and Opportunities for Yak Raising in a Changing Hindu Kush Himalayan Region,” includes a compilation of studies and presentations from the 5thInternational Conference on Yak held in Lanzhou that suggest international, rather than local, policy decisions may be the key to preserving yak populations.
Despite the species’ importance within the region, there is a significant lack of scientific research necessary to address the growing challenges posed by climate change. This report is an important first step in filling the gap of knowledge about yak herding and management. As David Molden, Director General of the International Center for Integrated Mountain Development, writes in the report, ‘The articles clearly indicate the need to develop a comprehensive understanding of the ecological, socioeconomic, and cultural role of yak, and its implications for biodiversity conservation and sustainable development at a local, regional, and even global scale.” The importance of yaks is highlighted by the FAO Regional Office for Asia and the Pacific, which states that yaks have played an important role in HKH life from Tibetan Buddhist ceremonies and economic activity, to preserving ecological diversity of high altitude rangelands through grazing patterns.
This report is the second publication on yaks compiled by ICIMOD following a 1996 report co-edited by United Nations’ Food and Agricultural Organization. It aims to bring multiple stakeholders together to discuss the growing challenges faced by pastoral communities in the high-altitude and glacier-covered ecosystems in the HKH region.
Yak on the Move is representative of ICIMOD’s transnational approach to conservation and policy, including research on a range of Hindu Kush Himalayan member countries including Afghanistan, Pakistan, Nepal, Bhutan, India, and China.
The report explores yak herding and challenges, policy and institutional arrangements, and yak cross-breeding practices. The analysis as a whole offers the case for developing international solutions to the many challenges faced by yak-herders—environmental change among the most pressing.
The Hindu Kush Himalayan region, often referred to as the “Third Pole,” holds 30 percent of the world’s glaciers and is one of the most vulnerable regions to climate change and glacial melting. Temperature increases are more pronounced at higher elevations, accelerating glacier retreat in the region and impacting yaks and pastoral communities. Yaks’ woolly undercoat makes them well-adapted for the intense cold of Himalayan winters, but also puts them at acute risk if temperatures increase. While struggling to protect their livelihoods, herders are displaced and forced to move to increasingly harsh landscapes and remote altitudes.
Some of climate change’s negative impacts on yak, including habitat reduction, are outlined in “Coping with Borders: Yak Raising in Transboundary Landscapes of the Hindu Kush Himalayan Region,” the first article in the report. When yaks are only able to graze in small areas, the rangeland cannot recover. The piece notes that pastoral communities have been forced to move to increasingly higher elevations, causing a cycle of further land use change and degradation.
However, rising temperatures are not the only threat to high-altitude ecosystems and the communities that depend on them.
Forest degradation, human-wildlife conflict and illegal trade of rare wildlife and plants are also isolated by ICIMOD as harmful to the area’s wildlife and human population.
The report’s authors find that the combined effect of mismanaged human activity and yak husbandry in the region cause land use changes that can lead to flooding and landslides, putting communities’ safety and livelihoods at further risk–risks that cross national borders. Therefore, while each country, and even community, have unique barriers to yak raising, climate change is a challenge that is universal throughout the region and cannot be solved without the combined efforts of the Hindu Kush Himalayan nations.
A trip to Bhutan last month provided me with an opportunity to visit one of the glaciers in the country along the crest of the Himalayas. I had hoped for such a trip since I first visited Bhutan in 2011, since I was curious to learn what local people thought about glacier retreat, but I had not previously had the chance to travel above the middle-elevation regions. In October, though, my colleagues Ed Cook, Paul Krusic and I had received permits to enter the high country. We arranged for horses to carry our gear, and hiked in for two days to Jigme Dorji National Park. We set up our tent in the village of Soe, where we attended a mountain festival and met with local officials and residents. Ed and Paul spent several days to take samples in the old-growth forests close to the tree line; they drilled cores in the trees, which they would later analyze to reconstruct the climate history of the region.
I realized that this was an opportunity for me to take a day on my own and hike up to the glaciers. I kept an eye on the weather, since clouds had been building up every afternoon, sometimes bringing rain, and I did not want to be trapped in a storm high on a mountain. The national park officials warned me to be careful if I left the main trails; they had had difficulties in rescuing foreign tourists who had gotten lost, or who had slipped. They reminded me that Bhutan, unlike Nepal, did not have helicopters that could fly in to remote areas if an accident occurred.
On the morning of Friday 9 October, the skies were a clear blue, offering the promise of good conditions for at least several hours. Moreover, I had an excellent guide. Renzin Dorji, the man whose horses we had chartered for two weeks and who had led us up the trail, had grown up in Soe. He had herded yaks as a boy and knew the countryside well. At the age of 37, he was old enough to recall the mountain when the glaciers had been larger.
We set off from Soe and came to the valley that led up to Jomolhari. Its summit, 7326 meters in elevation, rose high up into the sky. We set off on the north side of the creek that flowed through the valley, ascending slowly on a trail that led through meadows. Seeing the dense groves of junipers and birches, I thought of Ed and Paul. Renzin and I slowly ascended to the first moraine—a line of boulders across the valley, which had been pushed downslope by the glaciers in earlier, colder periods when the ice masses on the mountain had advanced to lower elevations.
When we came over the lip of the moraine, we saw Haluphu, a broad flat area across which the creek meandered in broad curves. Sixty or seventy yaks were grazing on the pastures or standing the creek. Renzin explained that the herders had recently brought their animals down from the high summer pastures to these lower elevations (between 4000 and 4500 meters) where they would spend the winter. In a month or so, temperatures would fall below freezing, and the snows would arrive. But in early October, the temperatures, which seemed about 15 or 18° C, were so warm for the yaks, with their thick dark wool, that they would enter the creek to cool off.
The massive peak of Jomolhari loomed in front of us beyond the grass-covered slopes. I looked up at the mountain and asked Renzin about it. He recalled that the ice had reached much lower down when he was a boy. The warm summers of recent years were the reason for the shrinkage of the glaciers, he said; much more water came rushing off the glaciers than in the past. It would be very serious when all the ice was gone, he thought. In fact, life might end altogether in the area. But that would be far in the future, since there was still a great deal of ice left. And the streams were still full, the pastures still abundant. Local people cared about the mountain, he added. Every household sends at least one person to the large festivals to honor Jomolhari that are held at a temple in another valley that came off the mountain. A monk came from Lingzhi, a village a day’s walk away, to lead these festivals. Renzin seemed to suggest that the mountain did not feel neglected.
We walked down from the moraine to the side of the creek in Haluphu. Renzin pointed out signs of new economic activities. He indicated a crude fireplace, a sign that people had come in the late spring or early summer to collect a medicinal fungus, called Cordyceps, which they sell for very high prices, either in government auctions in Bhutan or to buyers a day’s walk away across the border in China. He also showed me a large pit where local people had come to dig sand which they would mix with cement for the construction of government buildings, shops and houses in Soe and other villages. Earlier in the last century, stone buildings, sometimes chinked with mud, had replaced the yak-hair tents of the more nomadic pastoralists, and now cement was becoming common. The Cordyceps and sand-collecting were linked: flush with income from sales of fungus, local residents were constructing larger houses than they had had before. Renzin pointed out a new risk as well: there were large rocks on the flat areas along the creek. Rockfalls from the sides of the valley, especially in summer months, are more common than they had been in the past—possibly a sign of melting permafrost at high elevation, I thought. Renzin mentioned that yak-herders remained in higher pastures during the period of rockfalls, though others, eager to obtain products that they could sell at high prices, came then to collect Cordyceps and sand.
There were a number of animal trails that led up beyond Haluphu. Renzin led us on one which took us to a second moraine, composed of larger boulders than the first. Beyond that was a lake, named Haluphu Tsho, with strings of prayer-flags stretched across the point at its base where the creek emerged. The waters of the lake were a pale green, filled with fine glacier sediment. We saw a few yaks here as well, fewer than below.
The trail continued on above the lake to a third moraine. Here, at an elevation of about 4750 meters, the boulders were larger still, and had sharper edges. We stopped to look closely at Jomolhari, its immense mass filling the broad space at the head of the valley. The upper sections of the mountain were white with snow, but lower down the last winter’s snows had melted, revealing ice that was quite dark, almost slate gray in color. Was this local dust, or soot that had blown in from the diesel vehicles and wood fires of India? It would be possible to trace the history of this dark ice by taking cores, and seeing what particles were contained in the older ice, below the surfaces. Perhaps I would return some day with a glaciologist for such work, I thought. I recalled as well the warnings of the national park officials. The climbing had become difficult, and I did not want to risk a fall if I clambered over these large boulders to try to reach the ice. Moreover, this ice was further from the moraine than it had once been, since the glacier’s edge had moved upslope, revealing bare rock. The growing cloud masses on the summit removed any impulse to continue further: I did not wish to risk being caught in a storm higher on the mountain.
We sat in silence, staring at the mountain. After a while, I reached into my backpack and retrieved some snacks—Power Bars, a favorite of Ed’s and Paul’s, which we had both taken a liking to. We shared them, and then started our walk back. I reflected on the mountain and on the changes that Renzin had seen in the decades since he herded yaks in Haluphu as a boy. Renzin himself was taking part, in a small way, in the growth of tourism, by renting his horses to trekkers. The sale of medicinal fungi and of sand, the possibilities of trade (nearly all clandestine) with the growing towns just over the border in China: these new sources of income for local villagers were growing, perhaps as fast or faster than the glaciers were retreating. The final demise of the glaciers lay far in the future, while the trajectory of the new economy was uncertain. In the meantime, some features of earlier decades remained. Renzin’s wife and son cared for their yaks during the months when he accompanied foreign visitors, and their family sent a member to the festivals at the temple.
As we crossed the pastures below the first moraine, Renzin signaled to me to stop. He pointed out, just below us, a herd of blue sheep—a wild species, quite shy and rarely seen close up. Several yaks were grazing in their midst. I was pleased by this unexpected mix of the wild and the domesticated, at a spot not far from the villages in the main valley below Jomolhari. The presence of these animals gave me hope that the mix of old and new forms of human life high in the mountains might continue well into the future.
Of the things that my colleagues and I hoped to see on our trek in Bhutan, only one was missing: ice. Ed Cook and Paul Krusic, both tree ring scientists, found the groves of ancient trees they had planned to take sample cores from, and our trails led us to the villages where I talked with farmers about weather and crops, thanks to interpreter Karma Tenzin. But though I kept checking the summits of the mountains that towered over us as we hiked along valleys and climbed over ridges, no glaciers came into view.
Our trek started in Chokhortoe, the home village of our horsedriver Renzin Dorji, nestled on a small bench of flat land near a river. I had thought that we might see glaciers when we ascended the slopes from the valley. But forested ridges rise up sharply on both sides of the river, protecting the valley from the harsh winds of the Tibetan plateau but also blocking the highest snowpeaks from sight.
In fact, most of the local people I met had never seen a glacier at all. They live in villages like Chokhortoe, located in sheltered valleys where they can grow their crops, hardy varieties of wheat and barley and buckwheat. From the vantage point of these valleys, the glaciated crests of the Himalayas are hidden behind by mountain ridges. When the villagers travel to sell their crops, they generally head south towards the market towns closer to the border with India at lower elevations. The gates still stand which mark the old trails north to Tibet, but that trade ended with the Chinese occupation of Tibet in the 1950s. And the population growth and economic expansion in India has led to strong demand for Bhutanese crops in that country. Even our horsedriver, Renzin, had not travelled to the northern areas where the glaciers could be seen.
Only one villager, Sherab Lhendrub, had stories to tell me of the glaciers. A man in his late sixties, he has decades of personal experience to draw on. He used to travel to high pastures late in the spring, to bring a season’s worth of supplies to the three herders who cared for his yak herd. The herders would stay up at the summer camp for months, milking the female yaks and making butter and cheese. Each year he went up a second time, in the fall when the heavy snows and hard frosts were approaching, to assist the herders in closing up the summer camp and accompanying them on the two-day trek down to the winter pastures at a lower elevation. In his many years of travel, he observed the gradual reduction of the vast white cap of ice that covers the jagged peaks of Gangkhar Puensum, the Three White Brothers Mountain, which is also the highest unclimbed summit.
This glacier retreat has had not just visual, but practical consequences as well. Sherab told me that Monla Karchung, the White-covered Mountain Pass, retains its name but not its color. More importantly, it is now difficult to cross. Herders used to walk confidently across the glacier to reach a distant valley, trusting in the yaks’ uncanny ability to sense crevasses under the snow. Now the herders walk gingerly across the slippery black boulders, if they cross the pass at all. Sherab stood up and pantomimed someone walking carefully as he told me the story of a herder who lost his footing there. The man’s lower leg slid down and wedged between two boulders. The momentum of the fall pitched his body to one side, snapping his shinbone in two.
Sherab sold off his yak herd a few years ago, when he felt he was growing too old to continue the climbs to the high pastures. His son, who supplements the income from his farm with the earnings of a store and the occasional hire of his pick-up truck, is unwilling to make these arduous trips. Sherab was having difficulties finding herders to hire for the summer season as well. Many young people have become accustomed to cell phones and motorbikes, he explained. They are less willing to tolerate the weather in the high camps, which is cold even in summer, and the long hard days of work without any break. Even though butter and cheese from yaks are highly prized, and their meat is believed to confer strength on the people who eat it, fewer people in the region are herding them. Bhutan was losing not only glaciers, but also yak herders – and their yaks.
I was excited to discover that the next section of our trek would take us past the winter yak pastures, thousands of feet lower than the summer pastures but still well above the villages in the valleys. I quickly learned to recognize these camps as we came upon them: clearings in the forests an acre or more in size, filled waist-high with plants that had sprung up in the summer rains. Each camp had a small shack or a simple wooden frame over which blankets or a tarpaulin could be thrown, and each had a water-source nearby, a small trough placed in a stream that ran down a hillside. Most had a few poles with prayer-flags attached to them.
I would have loved to see the yaks returning to these camps, but that would not take place for several more weeks. But I could take advantage of the emptiness of the camps. I examined the charcoal in the fire pits in the shacks and walked the perimeter of the meadows to locate the posts where the herders would place branches to fence their animals in. I could tell that most of the camps were still in use. I conferred with the others to confirm that a few of the camps were abandoned. We could see the saplings, several years old, which had grown up in the absence of any grazing, and the heaps of old boards that were the remains of former shacks.
One camp that we visited on the third day of our hike had me puzzled. I wasn’t sure if it was abandoned or not. The thick, dry vegetation looked more than a year old, and the prayer flags were more tattered than any I had seen elsewhere in Bhutan. I followed the gurgling of water, and found a wooden trough to one side of a stream. I discussed this evidence with Ed and Paul, thinking that this meadow might be one more indication of the decline of yak herding. As we discussed this matter, Renzin the horsedriver came up. He recognized the tall plants right away. Their name in his language, Sharchop, is shampalí. It does dry quickly after the rains end, he said, but the yaks would eat it anyway, and they would relish the new leaves that were growing at the base of the dried stems. The case was closed: the camp had been used recently, even if the prayer flags were neglected and the trough needed a small repair. In this small corner, at least, the centuries-old livelihoods that have allowed local residents to maintain close contact with the glaciers remain alive.